Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently submitted his letter of resignation.
“[I] submitted my letter of resignation last night, which felt pretty good,” he told the House intelligence committee. “I have 64 days left, and I’d have a pretty hard time with my wife going past that.”
Clapper’s resignation was widely anticipated, since the relatively new position of DNI is seen as a political appointment as the president’s top intelligence adviser. Even though incoming president-elect Donald Trump has openly criticized—and clashed with—the intelligence community during this year’s campaign, Clapper’s staff was quick to caution that the move was not meant as a rebuke to the election results.
Clapper, a retired Air Force general who led two of the nation’s intelligence agencies before being appointed by Obama, has seen his tenure buffeted by controversy over the nation’s spying techniques—including former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks revealing high-tech surveillance programs, the killing of innocent civilians and US citizens by armed drones overseas, and the continuing disclosures around the CIA’s torture and rendition programs after 9/11.
Clapper also spoke with Wired for an interview.
Clapper is about as steeped in the intelligence business as any American ever has been. His father worked in signals intelligence during World War II. And when the young James met President John F. Kennedy in 1962 as a 21-year-old Air Force ROTC cadet, he told the commander in chief that he too intended to become an intelligence officer. It’s the only profession he ever really aspired to. Clapper met his wife at the NSA (her father also was an intelligence officer), and in Vietnam he shared a trailer with his father, who was the NSA’s deputy chief of operations there. By now Clapper has devoted more than a half century to the field. In 2007, the secretary of defense Robert Gates installed him as the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for intelligence, overseeing all four of its defense-related intel offices.
Then in 2010, angry over the intelligence community’s intransigence and failure to connect the dots to prevent the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Northwest Airlines flight, Obama turned to Clapper and made him the nation’s fourth director of national intelligence in just five years. Clapper figured he’d spend his tenure working behind the scenes, coordinating the nation’s many-tentacled intelligence apparatus.
Clapper’s life is a whirl of video teleconferences and nondescript spaces–subterranean briefing rooms, flatscreen-lined command centers, and eavesdropping-proof chambers called sensitive compartmented information facilities, or SCIFs (pronounced “skiffs” in spookspeak). His armored, antenna-topped black SUV-more tank than car-even has a satellite dish to keep Clapper in secure contact wherever he’s driving around DC. When he travels, a special team converts a hotel room into a secure communications suite. His digital hearing aids are regularly checked by security to ensure that no foreign adversary is listening, and his counterintelligence team dumbs down the iPads he uses to brief the president in the Oval Office so that they can’t transmit or eavesdrop.
Clapper will be remembered for something that originated inside his workforce: one of the most significant intelligence breaches in US history.
Clapper holds one of the broadest portfolios in government. The entire world is his domain: every election, economic upheaval, technological advance, terrorist plot, or foreign leader’s bad hair day. “I never get a pass in meetings,” he says.
Thanks to the documents leaked by Snowden, the American public now knows that Clapper’s empire encompasses more than 107,000 employees, roughly equivalent to the population of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Their combined budget exceeds $52 billion, including $10 billion for the NSA and $14 billion for the CIA, $2.6 billion of which goes for covert action programs like drone strikes and sabotaging Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s inside that workforce where Clapper has had his biggest successes, making headway in areas like procurement reform and IT upgrades or building partnerships with foreign governments and domestic agencies. Clapper has also tried hard to improve diversity, which he says still has a long way to go, and he became an unlikely champion for integrating LGBT employees into the intelligence community. “If I’d been able to work all the time on improving the institution and the community, that’d have been much more satisfying,” he says. But he knows that few outsiders will recall any of that.
Instead he will most likely be remembered for something else that originated inside his workforce: one of the most significant intelligence breaches in US history.
On Saturday, June 8, 2013, Clapper was at the office, giving a rare TV interview to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in an attempt to quell the growing controversy over a series of leaks in The Guardian and The Washington Post about the nation’s post-9/11 surveillance programs. “It is literally-not figuratively, literally-gut-wrenching to see this happen, because of the huge, grave damage it does to our intelligence capabilities,” Clapper told Mitchell. Minutes later, a member of his security detail-plainclothes, Glock-carrying CIA guards who each wear generic badges identifying them as a US special agent-interrupted to say Clapper had to take an urgent telephone call. That’s when he first heard the name that would, more than any other person, define his tenure: Edward Snowden.
In addition to the general shock waves that Snowden’s leaks sent, they caused a particular problem for Clapper personally. Upon discovering that the NSA had been vacuuming up global internet communications under a program codenamed Prism, the media quickly directed a spotlight on a seemingly innocuous Capitol Hill exchange that had occurred three months earlier between Clapper and US senator Ron Wyden. In a hearing on March 12, 2013, Wyden had asked Clapper, “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions, or hundreds of millions, of Americans?“
“No, sir,” Clapper replied.
“It does not?” Wyden asked, somewhat dumbfounded, since as a high-ranking intelligence committee member he knew otherwise.
“Not wittingly,” Clapper said. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
The hearing moved on with hardly a note of the exchange, but Wyden and his intelligence staffer were floored by what seemed to be an outright lie.
Wyden had watched as intelligence leaders at the NSA, who reported to Clapper, issued a series of purposefully misleading statements about their programs. They had already spent years on a “deception spree,” Wyden tells me. “He presided for years over an intelligence community that was riddled with examples.” These included then-NSA director Keith Alexander’s 2012 comment at the DefCon hacker convention that the agency didn’t collect dossiers on millions of Americans, which Wyden calls “one of the most false statements ever made about US intelligence.”
According to Snowden, it was Clapper’s response to Wyden that sent him over the edge. Though Snowden did not respond to an interview request for this story, he told WIRED in 2014 that he was horrified by how glaring and banal Clapper’s lie was: “He saw deceiving the American people as what he does, as his job, as something completely ordinary.”
Clapper brusquely rejects the idea that his exchange with Wyden motivated Snowden. “He’s tried to sell that story, but it’s bullshit,” he says, pointing to the fact that Snowden’s document-gathering began months before Clapper entered that Senate committee room.
“If for whatever reason Snowden felt compelled to expose what he felt were abuses related to so-called quote-unquote “domestic surveillance,” I might be able to understand what he did. But he exposed so much else that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance that has been profoundly damaging,” Clapper says. “I think he’s a narcissist. I don’t buy the idealism that he professes. I don’t buy that a bit.”
Over the past year, the explanation that Clapper has settled on is that he simply got confused answering Wyden’s question. Clapper says he was thinking about the programs that collected content, while Wyden was asking about programs that collected metadata. “The popular narrative is that I lied, but I just didn’t think of it. Yes, I made a mistake, but I didn’t lie. There’s a big difference.”
If anything, Clapper says, the public backlash over the Snowden leaks surprised him-and the intelligence community as a whole. “The shock was a shock,” he says. His agencies thought they were doing exactly what the American people wanted them to be doing-using every tool legally available to them. “I never met a collection capability I didn’t like, you know?” he jokingly told a group of intel leaders this fall.
In fact, he says, while the legislative changes after Snowden’s revelations made the process slower for the NSA, it greatly boosted the total amount of data the agency could legally access. “Instead of the NSA storing the data, we go to the companies and ask them for it,” he says. “It actually gave us broader access across a broader range of providers than the original programs. If people think their civil liberties and privacy are going to be better protected by the providers, OK.”
Since the Snowden breach, Clapper has tried to make more of an effort to talk publicly about the intelligence community’s work and release more of its records. This is partly just a concession to an unkind reality: Clapper doesn’t really think it’s possible to prevent another Snowden. Indeed, evidence suggests there is at least one other leaker still siphoning information about more recent classified NSA programs. He believes his workforce has to get out in front of a new era in which the government can hide far less. “At some point there will need to be a fairly fundamental change in the classification system,” he warned intelligence executives this fall. The current one, he said, “was born in a hard-copy paper era, and the rules we have today really aren’t compatible with technology and the way we conduct our business.â
That’s similar to what Wyden says he’s been arguing for years. The past decade has shown that secrets don’t keep, he says, and when the American people discover they’re being misled, that undermines their trust in government and leads them to question its morality and ethics. “The whole history of America is that the truth eventually comes out,” Wyden says. “I continue to be concerned about how, in the intelligence community, too often what the American people are told isn’t in line with what I learn about privately. That’s not right.”
Among other small steps toward openness, Clapper has overseen an effort to ease into public view more information about the drone program, which has faced increasing opposition, particularly after the September 2011 killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, an American cleric who had embraced al Qaeda and become a top leader of its affiliate in Yemen. That strike, which also killed another American, Samir Khan, and a second strike weeks later, which accidentally killed al-Aulaqiâs 16-year-old son, brought new attention to the killing of US citizens abroad by US intelligence and military without judiciary oversight.
In July, Clapper disclosed for the first time the government’s tally of civilians killed by drones in areas outside of hostile activities. Released around 6 pm on Friday of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the tally was widely derided as laughably low–between 2009 and 2015, Clapper said, the US conducted 473 drone strikes, killing around 2,500 “combatants” and between 64 and 116 “noncombatants.” These are just a fraction of the numbers that have been compiled by nongovernmental groups, which estimate more like 450 civilian dead in Pakistan alone. But Clapper told me he stands by his figures. “We did expose the full truth,â he says. Then he adds a curious caveat: “I think that’s a fair and accurate representation to the extent that we could be public about it.”
But mostly Clapper’s critics say that while the intelligence world might be offering more transparency at the margins, they haven’t seen evidence of any major philosophical shift. The ACLU’s principal technologist, Christopher Soghoian, says that while Clapper’s office has started a Tumblr and pushed to declassify some significant historical documents–including the drone casualty report and 28 long-hidden pages of a post-9/11 government investigation that dealt with Saudi Arabia’s role in financing and coordinating the attacks–it has yet to make public or confirm the existence of a single surveillance program or tool not exposed by Snowden. “To the casual observer it might seem like the DNI’s being more transparent,” Soghoian says. “What I think is that the DNI’s office has embraced transparency theater.”
One of the biggest projects of Clapper’s tenure post-Snowden has been to declassify thousands of the top-secret intelligence dossiers, known today as the President’s Daily Brief, that have been delivered to the Oval Office every morning since the Kennedy administration. Over the past year, Clapper and CIA director John Brennan have disclosed the majority of them up through the Ford administration.
In August the two men traveled to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library to mark the release of some 2,500 Nixon- and Ford-era briefings. Clapper spent the flight to California hunched over his laptop, reading the declassified documents. The experience was an odd one, he admitted, because the papers still had plenty of redactions–white boxes blocking out snippets and paragraphs of text. It had been years since Clapper had read documents in which anything was redacted from his eyes. “I do have to say that as I was reading, I was thinking, ‘I wonder why we redacted that? Could we have released more? What were we covering up right there?'”
One of the most alarming threats that has dogged Clapper’s tenure is a form of warfare that the United States itself pioneered. In 2008 a secret team of Israeli and American operatives unleashed the Stuxnet virus on Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant, using the worm to physically destroy the plant’s uranium centrifuges. It is widely considered the first major modern cyberweapon. The covert attack came to light in 2010, just as Clapper was taking office.
In the years since, other nations have attacked the US, from Iran’s theft of customer data from the Las Vegas Sands casino in 2014 to North Korea’s hack of Sony’s email servers. Just weeks before Election Day 2016, Clapper accused Russian officials of meddling in US politics, hacking campaigns and political parties. Those assaults were minuscule compared to what the US will face in the years to come, Clapper says. He’s worried not just about data destruction and theft but about what he calls the “next push of the envelope”: data manipulation, whereby adversaries subtly edit and corrupt information inside US computer systems, undermining confidence in government or industry records.
Government and private networks aren’t nearly as secure as they need to be, Clapper says. At the same time, he sees the offensive capability of the NSA and the Pentagon as key to keeping the peace online. Clapper has lamented the rapid spread of apps and services that offer end-to-end encryption; he argues that Snowden’s revelations have “sped up” the world’s adoption of advanced encryption by as much as seven years. He says that he and FBI director James Comey have never advocated for backdoor access to private data–a move that critics say is sure to make everyone more vulnerable to hacking by third parties who will inevitably discover and exploit the same back door. He believes the government needs to work with the tech industry to balance society’s desire for security with concerns over personal privacy. “I think with all the creativity and intellectual horsepower that’s in the industry, if they put their minds to it and some resources, they could come up with a solution.” He wonders if a type of escrow system in which encryption keys could be held by multiple parties would work. “There’s got to be a better way than this absolutist business, so that pornographers, rapists, criminals, terrorists, druggies, and human traffickers don’t get a pass.” Clapper has little faith in encryption as a bulwark against cyberattacks. Instead he thinks the answer lies in a strategy of deterrence.
In other respects too, he says, the nation needs to look further ahead. America is too preoccupied with terrorism and not focused enough on the most troubling long-range threats–from war in space, as China and Russia build antisatellite capability and threaten Americaâs dominance of technologies like GPS, to the ways in which artificial intelligence and human genomic modification could endanger national security. I ask him if the American people should just get used to terrorism attacks like those in Paris or San Bernardino, California. “I do,” he replies, his words clipped. “Got used to the cold war–went on a long time. Decades.”
While Clapper grudgingly accepts the damage the Snowden affair has done to his own reputation, he worries more deeply about the impact it’s had on the intelligence workforce. He hates the thought that America might turn on his employees. He fears that, in the same way the nation and Congress turned their backs on the CIA officers who ran the agency’s “black sites” and torture program in the wake of 9/11, the country will one day turn on the people who carry out drone attacks. “I worry that people will decide retroactively that killing people with drones was wrong, and that will lead us to criticize, indict, and try people who helped kill with drones,” he says.
“I find it really bothersome to set a moral standard retrospectively,” he says. “People raise all sorts of good questions about things America has done. Everyone now agrees that interning Japanese [Americans] in World War II was egregious–but at the time it seemed like it was in the best interests of the country.” Clapper, who endured a $40 million Senate investigation and condemnation of the CIA’s torture program, says he is concerned that today’s spies are at risk of similar changes in the political winds–where legally authorized actions they undertook in good faith become the basis for political witch hunts. He argues that during the past 15 years, the intelligence community has made mistakes–but it’s never willfully violated the law.
“Being under surveillance seven-by-24,” he says, pausing. “It’s stressful.” Unlike most of the foreign and domestic targets of the agencies he oversees, though, he knows he’s being watched.
Clapper claims that he wants transparency, but he does not go into detail about why the Snowden disclosures were “damaging.” Instead he attacks the messenger by calling Snowden a “narcissist,” and instead of accepting responsibility for his grievous lie under oath, tries to get away with saying that he was “confused,” when in reality, Senator Wyden had clearly asked him there about “any data at all,” and not specifically metadata or content. When Clapper says bullshit in the interview, he is projecting about his own claims.
Clapper is guilty of a perjury that is a felony, and history will note its moment. Yet because of the two-tiered legal system in the U.S., he was never indicted and kept his job. That one of the top officials in the U.S. is a felon that was never convicted says a lot about the U.S. government today.